No Room at the Barbican
Korean Film Back in the West End

Around these parts, around this blog, the Korean Film Festival (L.K.F.F.) is a big deal. This year, it screened eighteen films, hosted six Q & A sessions with prominent figures, had good visibility in three West End venues, and as far as I can tell had zero restrictions on admission at the point of purchase (yes, B.F.I. London Film Festival, that’s a dig at you). It handled its constraints and compromises admirably well, making it easy for visitors to attend all the screenings they wanted, and it covered nearly every one of the year’s top ten grossing films. Its only flaw was the shunting into the I.C.A.’s ugly theatre space and tiny screening room of such festival highlights as Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion, Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid and a panel discussion chaired by Tony Rayns. I hear the excellent Barbican is going to take until 2012 to build its two new film auditoriums, so if majority cinemas like the Odeon and V.U.E. (even the prestigious Empire) continue to refuse semi-art-house showcases on financing terms, then the festival’s options in forthcoming years are split between two locations: primarily the Southbank (the N.F.T.) and the West End (the Piccadilly Apollo and the I.C.A.). I’m not necessarily a fan of the commercial zing of the Square. A big advantage of the Barbican is that it is an arts complex, with plenty of foyer, bar and function room space to chat with filmmakers, festival programmers, and just about anybody else who’s at a screening; with limited space to do anything of the sort at the primary West End locations (except outside in the street with a cold cigarette), the festival missed the arts centre this year, we missed the arts centre. Still, the L.K.F.F. positions itself fundamentally as a way to promote Korean culture and tourism, and the skill with which it has leveraged its current position in the U.K. with quality screenings (Yang Ik-joon’s Breathless took ownership of the L.K.F.F. 09) and high-profile directors is pretty damn commendable.

In this, the L.K.F.F. is surprisingly international—which makes it hard to believe the whole enterprise is only in its fifth year. It's a festival, of course, and not an exhibition, so the expense necessitates the involvement of stars, state institutions, the press, and *blink* celebrity advocates. The appearances of directors Lee Jeong-beom and Kim Jee-woon continued this tradition, and in that sense their films—Lee’s The Man From Nowhere (2010), and Kim’s I Saw the Devil (2010)—were marketed both as pulp enticements and important cultural signifiers. I saw both and neither struck a chord with originality, but such is the messy curatorial business of film selection. Lee’s The Man From Nowhere shared some common virtues with lesser known, social agenda films on the programme—via its commentary on human trafficking and organ harvesting—but Kim's I Saw the Devil was hands down (I hope through no real fault of his own) the director’s weakest film. This said, the prestige Kim lends the festival as one of the top directors in Korean cinema is absolutely indispensable, and his popularity here in the city probably far greater than he realises. Elsewhere, the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ effort to support and manage the bulk of the L.K.F.F.’s screenings was welcomed—its cafĂ©/bar a decent place to catch up with others, the cinema reasonable enough to fit in Im Sang-soo’s Q & A—but the venue for the roundtable sucked: the theatre space was still set up for amdram, advertising stands came in late, and for good measure the seating was 1000 times worse than high school. But the topic—the future of the Korean film industry—was wholly prescient. In the last five years, the production of multi-purpose would-be blockbusters has bolstered commercial cinema, deepening anxieties regarding the promotion of domestic independent filmmakers and the sustainability of New Korean Cinema. Rayns, Simon Ward and mainstream filmmaker Jang Jin considered many aspects of the film business, including the present distribution system after the old lines collapsed, sources of financing for independents, and the merits of the Korean Film Council (K.O.F.I.C.)—a state-funded organisation which, for Jang at least, is having little success fostering artistic experimentation via its promotion, theatrical distribution and direct funding initiatives. In fairness, though, K.O.F.I.C. surely is about helping budding student filmmakers with short films and independents that can play internationally more than anything else? Bringing things back to the festival itself, Ward discussed the role of the Independent Cinema Office (I.C.O.) and particularly its association with K.O.F.I.C. and the Korean Cultural Centre in composing a viable film programme.

The addition of the Piccadilly Apollo on the list of venues showed the organisers’ ambition to enhance the L.K.F.F.’s image as a prestigious, cosmopolitan event. Consequently, crossing La Galleria Pall Mall to the mini-club atmosphere of the Apollo was some antidote to the I.C.A.: intelligent lighting system, relaxed lounge rooms, reflective surfaces, I’ll bet the place has a late night license too. For this opulent setting, the festival organisers mounted a Jang Jin retrospective. Jang’s visibility as a “pivotal voice” in Korean cinema (though amusingly he himself proposed “mysterious creature” as a more fitting description) is certainly less clear to audiences in the U.K.—particularly to those for whom Kim Ki-duk and Hong Sang-soo’s distinction has already been well confirmed—but his films, nonetheless, helped to differentiate this year’s festival from those of previous years, tactfully guiding our eye away from auteur showmen like Bong Joon-ho (2009) and Park Chan-wook (2007) if only to deposit us in the fairly mainstream realm of the black comedy, satirical thriller and the romcom. The exhibition featured Guns & Talks (2001), the sweetly comic Someone Special (2004), Murder Take One (a.k.a., The Big Scene, 2005) which screened at the L.K.F.F.’s inaugural launch four years ago, and Good Morning President (2009), a film which outgrossed Park Chan-wook’s Thirst at last year’s box office. In this, the festival’s reputation was well deserved, due to its close co-ordination of the four screenings with post-film Q & A sessions and film-specific introductions by the director.

Of this, however, there can be no doubt: the festival badly needs women. Oh, yes. See, I don’t mind attending the retrospectives, I dig the high-profile visits too, but between Jang, Kim, Im, Lee Jeong-beom, Ahn Jae-hoon, Simon Field, Simon Ward, Tony Rayns, Jonathan Ross and the South Korean ambassador popping in to wish us all the best, festival priorities are unreservedly edging out the girl guests in this equation. So this year’s spotlight category included a feature on leading ladies—the four films being Harmony (dir. Kang Dae-gyu, 2010), The Servant (dir. Kim Dae-woo, 2010), Bedevilled (dir. Jang Cheol-soo, 2010) which I think was screened earlier this summer at FrightFest, and the most relevant, Paju (dir. Park Chan-ok, 2009)—but to my knowledge Han Hye-jin, the co-director on the animated Green Days (co-dir. Ahn Jae-hoon, with whom Ahn runs Studio M.W.P.), was the only woman promoting Korean cinema this year. On the face of it, rare opportunities might have passed this Autumn to involve international star Kim Yoon-jin (Harmony) or the awesomely talented Jeon Do-yeon (The Housemaid), but as the press gambits for both films ended long ago (they screened in January and May respectively) nothing much was going to happen on that front. This has to change. If the L.K.F.F. is to continue revamping itself and consolidate its position alongside the London Film Festival as one of the finest film cultural events in this city—and it deserves its reputation—then perhaps it can turn to film actresses like, for instance, Yum Jung-ah and Bae Doo-na. As cultural ambassadors with interests that extend beyond cinema, both actresses would change the mindset of future festivalgoers. For the better.
28 November, 2010


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